The Metamorphosis of the Sun God in Ancient Synagogues in Israel

What are the zodiac and other images doing in those bastions of monotheism? The answer lies in a Judaism we don’t know anymore

Elon Gilad
Ruth Schuster
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Mosaic zodiac and seasons at Zippori
Mosaic zodiac and seasons at ZipporiCredit: G.dallorto
Elon Gilad
Ruth Schuster

At least seven synagogues in Israel built 1,500 to 1,700 years ago feature mosaics of the zodiac, of all things.

The zodiac symbols are in a circle surrounding what appears to be the Greek sun god Helios. The circle is typically enclosed within a square, with human figures representing the four seasons at its corners. Some of the mosaics also show the moon and stars.

Apparently, later generations were as appalled, as today’s rabbis would be if somebody drew pigs on the synagogue floor. In some cases, the depicted deity and personified seasons in the mosaics have been defaced; in the sixth-century mosaic at the Susya synagogue in the West Bank, for instance, most of the zodiac has been replaced with geometric forms.

The synagogues in question are at Beit Alfa, Zippori, Hammat Tiberias, Hosefa (Usfiyya) and Huqoq in the north, and in Susya and Naaran in the West Bank. The question is what these pagan images were doing there, positioned smack at the entrance to the houses of worship (except at Zippori). You couldn’t miss them.

“At the time, it was evidently considered permissible to use imagery of people, animals and even pagan gods as long as it was in the service of Jewish tradition and adopted Jewish meaning,” says Prof. Moti Aviam, an archaeologist at Kinneret College and an expert on ancient religious structures.

At the earliest of these synagogues, Hammat Tiberias from the fourth century, the autumn Tishri season is personified by a woman holding grapes, her hair adorned with figs, pomegranates, leaves and flowers. Even though she’s wearing fruit, she looks quite natural, Aviam notes. Tishri’s depiction at the later Beit Alfa is highly stylized, as Byzantine art had become.

 Mosaic with the Helios image, the zodiac and the four seasons at Hammat Tiberias
Mosaic with the Helios image, the zodiac and the four seasons at Hammat TiberiasCredit: Goldstar

Also, the woman has wings. At Huqoq, the Tishri image is a winged male. We know he marks Tishri because of the fruit, Aviam adds.

A mosaic at the ancient synagogue at Ein Gedi on the Dead Sea is another outlier; it has images of birds but no zodiac. Still, it has Hebrew inscriptions listing the 12 zodiac signs and the 12 Hebrew months.

Hammat Tiberias was next door to Tiberias, home to the Sanhedrin Jewish High Court. Surely the rabbis wouldn’t have put up with filth.

How did imagery become acceptable in synagogues?

The answer lies in the kind of Judaism practiced in these synagogues. It was not Rabbinic Judaism, which would eventually become Judaism as we know it but at the time was only taking shape on the sidelines of the Jewish world. The Jews who prayed in these and other synagogues belonged to what was then the mainstream of Judaism but is now long forgotten: Hellenistic Judaism.

The Mithraic mysteries and the Jews

Hellenistic Judaism began to take shape in Ptolemaic Egypt (305 to 30 B.C.E.) and quickly spread throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Jewish soldiers stationed throughout the territories of the Ptolemaic and Seleucid empires took this form of Judaism to far-flung regions such as Cyrene (now in Libya), Cyprus, Syria and Asia Minor. There, these communities, which were initially very small, grew rapidly, perhaps becoming as large as half the urban population by the end of the first century C.E.

The exponential growth of the Jewish populations in these regions cannot be explained by Jewish fecundity. The synagogues popping up all over the Roman Empire, especially in its Greek-speaking east, were accepting non-Jews into their fold.

Part of the Huqoq mosaic
Part of the Huqoq mosaicCredit: Jim Haberman

The fact that Judaism at the time was growing at a great rate due to the acceptance of converts might seem strange to us, but inscriptions found in the synagogues of the period attest to members who were proselytes and “God fearers” – non-Jews who worshipped the Jewish god but hadn’t fully converted – perhaps because they were reluctant to undergo circumcision.

In parallel, Roman religion was undergoing profound change. The Greco-Roman gods were losing their luster and Roman eyes began to drift to the exotic religions of the East, one being Hellenistic Judaism.

Among other eastern religions gaining large followings throughout the Roman Empire at the expense of the old gods were the cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis, the Persian god Mithra, and the sun god Sol Invictus, whose provenance is contested. Other eastern practices were also gaining traction, notably astrology, originally a Babylonian pseudoscience that was becoming an obsession among Romans, while the oracles of old were neglected and disappeared.

As Roman religion was changing, so too was the religion of Judea. Following the destruction of Second Temple Judaism in the disastrous anti-Roman revolts in the 60s and 130s C.E., the dominant form of Judaism practiced in Judea at the time, a Judaism centered around the Temple, disappeared. Hellenistic Judaism became the dominant form of Judaism in the Holy Land in the following centuries, as the mosaic-adorned synagogues attest.

These shuls and their mosaics only seem strange when compared to the later synagogues of Rabbinic Judaism, but they are perfectly in line with the Roman cults of the period. Indeed, Hellenistic Judaism is best understood as a Roman cult.

The comparison of Hellenistic Judaism and Roman Mithraism is especially intriguing. Hundreds of mithraea, caves or rooms designed to look like caves in which Roman adherents of the cult practiced Mithraism’s mysteries, have been discovered. These bear some resemblance to the Hellenistic synagogues.

Part of the mosaic floor at the ancient Ein Gedi synagogue
Part of the mosaic floor at the ancient Ein Gedi synagogueCredit: PHAS / Universal Images Group vi

Among the relevant similarities are the portrayal of Mithra as a solar deity on a horse-drawn chariot and astral imagery including the signs of the zodiac. So in this respect the existence of the zodiac and the portrayal of the Jewish god as a solar deity in synagogues was in line with the general thrust of Roman religion during the period.

A different kind of Judaism

Hellenistic Judaism was very different from the Rabbinic Judaism that would later supplant it.

Prayer and reading of scripture was in Greek, not Hebrew. The practices and beliefs were also very different, if we take the writing of the first-century philosopher Philo as representative. Though lacking any central leadership, the rituals probably varied quite a bit from community to community. Also, a synagogue was headed not by a rabbi but by an archisynagogos (“head of the synagogue”) and a council of elders (presbyteroi).

Hammat Tiberias synagogue: Inscription in Greek
Hammat Tiberias synagogue: Inscription in GreekCredit: Itai

This form of Judaism is alien to us because it did not last. After flowering in the fourth and fifth centuries – as attested by the synagogues built in this period – Hellenistic Judaism collapsed and disappeared, together with the Roman society in which it existed.

Hellenistic Judaism disappeared for many reasons. Christianity, which began as an offshoot of Hellenisitic Judaism but evolved into a separate religion, brought with it persecution and conversions. But that was only part of the problem. The Early Medieval Period was marked by cataclysms including earthquakes, the Little Ice Age, crop failures, plague, and wars: Germanic and then Muslim invasions of the lands of the former Roman Empire. Millions died during these terrible times, including millions of Jews.

By the time the Mediterranean Basin recovered, the number of Jews had plummeted, and the survivors found their leaders among the rabbis, who would have taken a dim view of the pagan artwork in the middle of a synagogue floor.

The religion that these rabbis brought to their communities, Rabbinic Judaism, taking the place of Hellenistic Judaism, was not new. It began to take shape after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and developed in two major centers, the Galilee and Babylonia, basically modern-day Iraq. Some of these early rabbis would have been neighbors of the Jews who prayed in these mosaic-adorned synagogues. In all likelihood, the rabbis even prayed in them themselves.

But as is evident from their writings (the Mishnah and other Tannaitic literature), the rabbis were not in control of Jewish religious practices during the Roman and Byzantine periods. The synagogues had their own independent leadership. The rabbis’ place was the court and study house, not the synagogue.

Thus the Jewish populations decorated their synagogue floors with Capricorn and all the others, and Helios/Yahweh. But what about the prohibition on graven images?

Parsing ‘graven image’

Making graven images was categorically forbidden in the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, even any manner of likeness, of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Deuteronomy 5:7).

Like all other sections of the Torah, the date of this text is disputed. But whether dating to the First Temple period or earlier, or written later in the Exilic age, it was probably not understood as banning all representational art, just cultic statues.

Sacrifice of Isaac, mosaic at Beit Alfa
Sacrifice of Isaac, mosaic at Beit AlfaCredit: Talmoryair

Clearly by the time of these synagogues, the fourth to sixth centuries C.E., the local Jews were comfortable with representational art. They would have presumably objected to representations of pagan gods, however, hence the solar deity in the synagogues was meant to represent the God of Israel, most scholars agree.

Other scholars have suggested that the sun image represents the deity's eternal promises to the people of Israel, as brought in the story of Abraham's aborted sacrifice of Isaac, which is also depicted in some of these synagogue mosaics; or his promise to King David, via the prophet Nathan: "Thy throne shall be established forever."

Aviam suggests that Helios doesn’t represent Yahweh per se but the sun. “Together with the moon and stars, the 12 months and seasons, the image is representative of the power of god in the universe he created,” he says.

The bottom line is that it’s hardly surprising that Roman-Byzantine synagogues portrayed the sun, or Yahweh as a solar deity: The Jews who prayed there were essentially Romans and this is how the Romans of the period envisioned and portrayed the supreme god.

Furthermore, the presence of the zodiac is in line with the trends of the time. In fact, Jewish expertise in astrology and astronomy may have been one of the major draws of Judaism in the first place.

Today we tend to think of astrology as anathema to Judaism, but that wasn’t the case then. For example, the anonymous second-century B.C.E. author known as Pseudo-Eupolemus believed that Abraham invented astronomy. In the first century C.E., the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus claimed that Abraham taught the Egyptians the art of astronomy. And, in the Historia Augusta collection of biographies, the second-century Roman emperor Hadrian was quoted as saying that all the heads of synagogues at the time were astrologers.  

The rabbis of the Talmudic age also believed in the efficacy of astrology. For example, a very important third century rabbi, Rabbi Samuel, is said to have been an astrologer (for example, Berachot 58b in the Talmud). Another important rabbi, Rava of the fourth century, is quoted in the Talmud as saying: “Duration of life, progeny, and subsistence are dependent upon the constellations” (Moed Katan 28a).

Beit Alfa Synagogue Zodiac Mosai
Beit Alfa Synagogue: The Zodiac, the four seasons and the sacrifice of IsaacCredit: Betty Nudler

When the Talmud does criticize astrology, it’s not out of the belief that the celestial realm doesn’t determine the comings and goings on earth. It’s because of the shortcomings of astrologers who fail to correctly read the signs.

In later generations, many medieval rabbis practiced astrology and sometimes practiced the art in the service of kings. For example, the eighth-century Jewish astronomer Mashallah ibn Athari was the court astrologer to the Abbasid Caliphate.   

What about the seasons? Why were they there?

The mitzvah of the seasons

According to Rabbi Shmuel bar Namani, Rabbi Yoanan said: From where is it derived that there is a mitzvah incumbent upon a person to calculate astronomical seasons and the movement of constellations? As it was stated: “Observe therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, that, when they hear all these statutes, shall say: ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’” (Deuteronomy 4:6) – The Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 75a.

Beit Alfa synagogue mosaic showing Helios riding a chariot, personifications of the four seasons in the corners
Beit Alfa synagogue mosaic showing Helios riding a chariot, personifications of the four seasons in the cornersCredit:

The modern Hebrew word for season is onah but the Talmud refers to the four phases of the year as tekufot, derived from “cyclic,” Aviam says. The Talmudic tekufot are Nisan, the spring; Tamuz, the summer; Tishri, the autumn; and Tevet, the winter. In the Diaspora, Jews refer to the High Holy Days, but Jewish Israelis just call them the Tishri holidays, Aviam notes.

The Tishri autumn season is personified by a woman surrounded by symbols of fall agriculture. The vast majority of people in Byzantine Palestine were farmers, he adds.

So, just as humans evolved from ratty micro-mammals that frisked between the toes of dinosaurs, religions evolved too. Today, the sages of old would be tarred and feathered on Facebook for their ideas, but the kabbala advocated the invoking of “divine names” to gain powers.

The evolution of Judaism is quite similar to the evolution of biological species. It's not a neat progression from First Temple Judaism to Second Temple Judaism and then to Rabbinic Judaism, as Jewish history is often viewed. Rather, the religion evolved with time and some forms were false starts, while others spread and continue to evolve to this day, like Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, Samaritanism, and Karaite Judaism.

To return to the metaphor of the dinosaurs and the tiny furry animals from which we evolved, we could say that Hellenistic Judaism with its zodiac mosaics was like the dinosaurs: great at the time but destined to go extinct – in the calamitous Early Middle Ages. It was the small, at the time almost imperceptible, Rabbinic Judaism that survived these disasters and became the Judaism of later periods, much like the rodents that survived the dinosaur-killing disaster from which we eventually evolved.

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